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[EDITOR’S NOTE: We conducted this interview in early 2020. Since the show was released during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked Donald what his advice is for sales professionals during the pandemic. He offered the following:
- Leading with content – we produce content on a daily basis and have produced some Coronavirus-specific content that has been very useful to our clients who are trying to help the Government respond to the crisis as well as maintain normal business operations during this time. Our sales teams are making sure that current clients and prospects are aware of everything that Bloomberg Government is doing to provide guidance and information.
- Raising awareness – our account management team is reaching out to our current clients to make them aware of our content and our platform. In the course of doing that, we are finding opportunities for our current clients to engage with us in a more meaningful way.
- Focusing on Digital – again, based on content that can help firms in the Government Contracting space, we are moving many live events to digital platforms and adapting the content accordingly all with the aim of reaching as many people as we can with quality content and actionable information.
EPISODE 215: Bloomberg Gov Sales Chief Donald Thomas Shares How the Strong Relationships You’ve Developed Will Set You Aside – During the Pandemic and Beyond
DONALD’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Sales is really the thing that measures how well our company is doing, you’re selling or you aren’t, you’re winning against the competition or you aren’t. You’re out on the front lines, you’re the engine that drives the growth here and it’s very clear whether we’re doing something right or not because we’re selling and retaining customers.“
Donald Thomas is the VP and General Manager at Bloomberg Government (BGOV).
Prior to coming over to Bloomberg, he held leadership positions at Dell, SRA and Ernst & Young.
Donald can be found on LinkedIn here.
Fred Diamond: Donald, it’s great to have you on the Sales Game Changers podcast. For people listening around the globe, we’re doing the interview today in Downtown DC, we’re doing it at the offices of Bloomberg Government, a lot of energy, very cool offices here.
Donald Thomas: Thank you.
Fred Diamond: A lot of energy, I like it, it’s a nice buzz, a lot of white backgrounds and beautiful lighting and things like that. It’s probably a pretty good place to come to every day.
Donald Thomas: Absolutely. Every Bloomberg office is an open office environment very similar to this.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Donald Thomas: Quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure you’d want to chat with me in this forum because I’m probably a bit different in that I’ve not had a traditional sales career. My career has been primarily in management consulting and now in more of a general management role. I think the sales connection is I’ve had a number on my head for the last 20 years or so even running these businesses.
I think when I was in consulting I learned you could go one of two ways: one was to become a subject matter expert in a certain area and the other was to be decent in several disciplines but really great at building and leading businesses and that’s the direction I decided to go long ago which means you have a sales or growth number on your head and you do it either yourself or you partner with a sales organization. Here at Bloomberg Government it evolved into a General Manager role, I lead a business that has several dozen salespeople as well as product data, engineering, market analysts, etc.
Fred Diamond: Now you’re running the organization, you’ve been doing it for a number of years and I know you manage a bunch of salespeople, we’ve met a number of them over the years at the Institute for Excellence Sales programs. Walking over here to where we’re doing the interview today we walked past your sales floor and a lot of energy going on right there, I know it’s a lot of interesting things. Tell us what you sell today, though and tell us what excites you about that.
Donald Thomas: The primary thing that we’re selling is marketing competitive intelligence for government contractors. We help them understand the market and we help them gain a competitive edge against their competitors. I think the thing that excites me the most is I feel that we’re using a data driven approach and that’s really changing the way that government contractors go to market in this space.
Fred Diamond: For the people listening around the globe to the podcast, tell them what a government contractor is. We do a lot of Sales Game Changers podcasts, we’ve interviewed people on the GovCon space, of course the show is based in Washington DC but a lot of our listeners are all over the globe. What is a government contractor and what do they do?
Donald Thomas: The government allocates roughly $500 billion a year to purchase everything they need from nuclear submarines – the giant companies like Lockheed and etcetera sell – all the way down to paper and pencils and everything in between, consulting services, IT infrastructure. We work with the companies that sell those products and services to the government and it’s unique because it’s a different type of procurement than what’s done in the commercial sector. We provide a lot of the information, make a lot of the connections that help them understand the market.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell. Do you sell subscription based services or reports or consulting?
Donald Thomas: We primarily sell subscription based product, we also license our data so that the customers can put it in and mash it up with their own data and do what they need to do on the back end, but primarily it’s a subscription service.
Fred Diamond: Again, your background as we talked about, you’re the General Manager of the space, you came up through the consulting ranks, if you will so it would be interesting to see how you answer some of the questions. Typically on the podcast we ask the same questions, I’m really curious on how you’re going to answer some of these but let’s talk about the first realization that you were in sales as a career and that you were responsible for these numbers. Tell us about that.
Donald Thomas: Early on when folks would ask what I wanted to do and I was interviewing right out of college, I avoided sales like the plague. I wanted to be an analyst, I was in finance, I wanted to do anything but sales but I think I quickly realized that most every job has a sales component. Particularly as I got into the consulting world, to really advance in that industry you had to be able to work with customers in a way that whether you personally did it or it sold the organization, just your good work, you ultimately had some sort of a sales hat on. That’s how I realized that, by going out and serving customers and realizing that we all had to be sales folks.
Fred Diamond: Let me ask you a quick question. When you became conscious of that, what did you do? What are some of the things that you did to change your being with your customers?
Donald Thomas: I think it’s one of the big lessons I found and it’s things that as I advanced in my career we worked on training more junior folks, is being aware that you’re having a sales conversation even when you’re delivering a project or delivering an end result picking up on key signals or key words that the customer is saying that then you either can capitalize on from a sales perspective or at least bring it back to the people who are responsible for sales and are more senior, more confident in a selling world. I think going through that and seeing it personally and then figuring out how to train others to do that is when I realized that all of it is really sales.
Fred Diamond: That’s interesting because we have a lot of people listening to the show who come from the professional services space and we’ve interviewed some great sales leaders who came from the space as well. What might be some of those signals that you might hear if you’re a services professional on site? What might you want to be listening for?
Donald Thomas: In previous lives I did a lot of strategy consulting work and we would come into typically a situation where a customer had a vexing problem or they were making a big change to the organization and we would help them figure out ways to come up with the strategy itself or how to enact the change. Typically there’s a tale to those types of projects. Our goal became not to just deliver a strategy or a big presentation at the end but also to get the downstream work which usually was managing projects or leading people through complex change efforts.
Customers would say things like, “This is great, this is amazing, I’m not sure I have the people for this” or, “How would you recommend implementing? How would I measure the results?” Things like that. “Well, we can help you with that, we can help you build KPIs, we can help you actually lead some of these projects and bring your people through the end of the tale.”
Fred Diamond: We typically interview a couple different types of sales leaders on the show. A lot of the people we interview sold lemonade when they were in 10th grade type of a thing and they got into sales right after college, they embraced it, etcetera but we’ve interviewed a number of people like yourself who didn’t start in sales and you even said you went in kicking and screaming but you had this transformation because you realized that it was your job at the end of the day. How did you then be when you had that realization, that transformation? Did you all of a sudden embrace the sales process? Tell us a little bit about when that happened and how you shifted.
Donald Thomas: For me it was more about realizing that in the consulting world if we were delivering high quality work solving problems and building relationships with the customers, the selling, I don’t want to say it was easy necessarily, but it came very naturally and you wanted to be a part of it because it led to other interesting projects that you could work on. Then quite frankly I realized that to advance in these companies you had to own a number, you had to own a book, you had to build a business or at least be a big part of that but I never looked at is as I was a bag carrying sales rep. Does that make sense?
Fred Diamond: Absolutely.
Donald Thomas: If you’re doing interesting work, you’re delighting the customer, you’re building relationships that last, they’ll naturally hopefully ask you to do things and that’s really fun and interesting versus, “I have to get to $3 million this year, where do I start?” and go out and do that. It’s just a different type of arrangement.
Fred Diamond: That’s actually a great way to think about it because again, one of the key things that comes up all the time on the podcast is the notion that you’re bringing value to the customer even more so than ever before, and the second thing that’s come up a lot recently, Donald, is the whole notion of putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. Thinking about the customer perspective versus what you want the customer to do, but versus how you could provide more value and help the customer become more successful.
Donald Thomas: Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times particularly in the space I’m in now where we work with folks who are selling to the government, government customers all the time will say, “I’ve had 15 different technology companies come see me in the last month all of whom have a solution. They walk in with a PowerPoint or a one-pager, they think that they can take whatever they’re selling and it’ll plug right into my environment not technically, but it’ll solve my problem and they don’t know the first thing about my organization.” I think that’s a huge element not just in the industry I’m in but in general, understanding the customer, putting yourself in their shoes, trying to figure out a solution for them versus, “Here’s my product, here’s my service and you, Mr. or Mrs. customer figure out how it’ll work in your environment.” You’ve got to do that leg work.
Fred Diamond: You manage dozens of salespeople, you said.
Donald Thomas: Correct.
Fred Diamond: What are some things you do to help them understand the challenges that their customer faces?
Donald Thomas: We sell to a lot of SVP of Business Development at a government contractor so we’ve had a day in the life of a business development professional. We put together training material, 101, 201, 301. Most government contractors follow a fairly standard structure for going after relatively large acquisitions and we explain how that works, why they do prequalification, why they do capture, why they partner with each other which is a big thing in this industry, they’re frenemies and in a lot of cases why is that? What do they care about on a day to day, month to month basis? How do they get internal money to bid on procurement opportunities with the government? Hopefully that helps our more junior folks understand the market, it’s a complex market, and then prepare them to be able to have those engaging conversations and offer a solution, hopefully to our prospects and customers.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, tell us what you’re an expert in. Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Donald Thomas: When I was in the consulting world, my focus was in strategy consulting with some project management, I was a Project Management Professional at one point and I think that’s really how I worked within the consulting world. I think, though that leading people and that sort of thing but really the thing that I think I’ve done a good job at is having emotional intelligence which I know is a big buzz word out there. It gets to what you were saying earlier about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, both customers but also folks here internal. Empathizing, trying to paint a picture of what they’re dealing with so that I can hopefully offer career advice or advice on how to solve a problem internally or with the customers.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about an impactful sales mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Donald Thomas: Early in my career I thought I had to perfectly emulate the top leader, for example at a consulting firm and I realized quickly that that’s impossible for various reasons. Their experience level, their personality is different so when I thought about how other leaders have impacted me, there are probably four folks at one of the consulting firms I worked at that was bought by SRA as we mentioned earlier. They all did things very differently, one of them was really the rainmaker, he always had more information than everyone else and you got that from really hard work and he’s very creative.
Another one dug in hard with the client and became a part of that client’s organization and just had a knack for doing that. One was very visual, would create these visual solutions that quickly got clients to understand what we were talking about and I would say the fourth was just very pragmatic and earnest in his approach to helping clients and growing the business. What I try to do is take bits and pieces then fit my own personality into that and try to learn from all of them and create a style and a way of being that worked for me.
Fred Diamond: I’m curious, do you consider yourself to be a mentor to a lot of the people in the organization as well?
Donald Thomas: I think so. Folks tell me that, there’s nothing official. We actually do reverse mentoring here which has been really interesting. I’ve had two where I’m the mentee and a more junior person is the mentor.
Fred Diamond: Really?
Donald Thomas: We’ve done that twice where you have a six month or so relationship, I learned a ton from that, not just the whole millennial thing but both of them happened to be female. What female emerging leaders care about, what is most important when we do big town hall meetings and what they want to hear about. Both of them were actually from another part of the business so what was going on in that business and what they wanted to learn about and how they wanted to grow. That was just as powerful as hopefully me mentoring others.
Fred Diamond: That is a great idea, we run a Women in Sales program and we were thinking that was for the more senior people, if you will, to give advice to the younger professionals as they grow their career and one of the most valuable things that came back was exactly what you just said, which is the people who are a little more senior in their career getting some ideas and assistance on how to work with today’s work force.
Donald Thomas: Absolutely, it was very valuable.
Fred Diamond: How has it helped you become a better leader?
Donald Thomas: In a way we talked about empathizing and being in other people’s shoes, I think it made that a lot easier and we do hire a lot of younger folks here, typically second, third job type folks and it’s a vast portion of our work force. It allowed me to connect on a much deeper level with more of those people.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as that sales leader?
Donald Thomas: Retaining and properly incentivizing top talent, absolutely. It’s a competitive marketplace, DC is very competitive and it’s growing tremendously, as you know, the DC Metro Area. We invest a lot in training, we do that and then I think sometimes we have a hard time keeping folks. We’ve kept some people for multiple years but I think that’s something that we have to revisit every year and get creative of how do we retain and then incentivize properly and think about it all the time.
Fred Diamond: What would make a good sales professional selling subscription based services of the market intelligence that you guys sell?
Donald Thomas: The market is very complex so I think the folks that are willing to dig in, work hard and learn the market, they’re typically talking to people who have been in the industry for 20 or 30 years. If they walk in the door and they don’t understand how the federal budget works, for example, or how the contracting and procurement process works yet they’re pushing a product or a subscription service, that doesn’t work very well. We have conversations where two companies on paper look very similar, they’re both $50 million dollars a year, IT services companies, one goes to market completely differently than the other and you talk to those people back to back. You have to be able to pivot, if you’re not confident in the market and how it works, you can’t pivot into those conversations.
It’s almost like you’re reading off a script that doesn’t work, so getting people up to speed. Then from there it’s general sales skills and they’re not easy but it’s hard work, building relationships, empathizing and being able to solution for the client and explain how we will move the needle forward for that business versus, “Hey, this is some website you can log into and get some information.”
Fred Diamond: Take us to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Donald Thomas: I think it’s been a couple of examples where for whatever reason, myself, my team, my company broke through a barrier. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I was at a startup in the 90s, we were doing some government work but we knew we needed to diversify and get into commercial. We took what we thought was a really long shot on a commercial RFP, global piece of work, we would have to really expand the team to be able to service it at BMW and we won it. It was this breakthrough moment for our company of expanding into a new market, it was a great blue chip client. I think another one was taking a really small engagement, $200 thousand and then thinking, “We’ll just do this engagement, that’ll be that” but then it turned into a $5 million dollar a year client because we did additional work and built relationships. Here at Bloomberg it was turning what was arguably a struggling business into a consistently double digit year over year growth business that’s hitting our exceeding targets year over year now. It felt like I was a big part of that and that’s been very rewarding so breaking through barriers has been a lot of fun.
Fred Diamond: The sales side, it’s hard especially when you move from the services side and you mentioned in the beginning of the interview that you went in kicking and screaming, if you will. Have you ever said to yourself, “It’s really just too hard and not for me”?
Donald Thomas: All the time, sure.
Fred Diamond: Really?
Donald Thomas: In the consulting side there were times I thought it was really hard to distinguish the firms that I worked for, the service offerings we were providing from other firms. There’s 10 thousand companies in the government space that offer IT solutions, let’s say for example, how do you distinguish yours from someone else? I think when I was selling strategy and change management they’re hard because they’re not tangible products that people understand. I think what makes it work and what made it work then was when we found the right person, articulated a future state vision of how our services would change their organization and really solutioned. Here I think it’s every month we have targets so there are times when you’re like, “This is going to be a slow month” but then you just rebound the next month and the next quarter so it’s still very rewarding but there’s always times when you’re like, “Is this really the right thing?”
Fred Diamond: Donald, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior sales professionals to help them take their career to the next level? You mentioned you hire a lot of people who are second or third job in so what’s the #1 thing you want to tell them to be successful?
Donald Thomas: When I’m talking to those folks and they ask me a question like this, what I tend to tell them is there’s really three things that if you can do these three things, it’s no magic potion out there but these three things will lead to a lot of success. One is hard work, two is continually learning and three is to be able to develop meaningful relationships with customers and even peers in the industry. Those things have served me well, they’ve served other senior folks above me well and I think the folks that do well here can do those three things.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your continued success.
Donald Thomas: I’ve mentioned relationships, I think that’s really important. Honesty, there’s time when it’s the right thing to tell a customer you can’t help them rather than say yes and then not be able to deliver, I think that’s a big one. We’ve talked about this too, solutioning. Rather than just saying, “This is what we offer” walking the customer through what the actual solution to their problem is and how it’ll look at the end.
Fred Diamond: Give us some advice on relationship building. You mentioned that as one of the three tips but give us a tip for the listeners around the globe. What’s something they can be doing to develop these relationships?
Donald Thomas: I had a colleague from business school before LinkedIn was really a big thing and she basically had her own CRM data base. She was using some sort of software, I’m not sure what it was but an offline CRM software that was just for her own career sales. I’ve never quite gone to that level although I admired that, I think for me it’s thinking of ways that you can keep in touch with people. It can be very simple, I had someone reach out to me today to say, “Happy new year, hope you’re doing well” that I hadn’t seen in six months, so you shoot a quick note back.
We had someone leave Bloomberg Government in December, I shot him a text today to say, “Hey, how’s the new gig going? Love to hear about it in a month or so once you have your feet under you.” Sometimes it’s just really simple things, other times it’s reaching out to offer a piece of information or something that will help them in their career and hopefully most people tend to reciprocate.
Fred Diamond: When you mention these relationships, a lot of it is like the long game. When you think about the customers that you service, the government contractors, some of these government contracts are decades, scores long, if you will and people might be still working on those or you’ve worked with someone 10 years ago and now a new project or they refresh or something along those lines. It’s not about a quick hit type of relationship in this space, the consultative type space especially with the solutioning that we’re talking about here. A lot of these relationships are going to pay off maybe 10, 15 years down the road.
Donald Thomas: Absolutely. I mentioned at the beginning that it’s about a $500 billion per year industry which makes it to just seem gigantic but I found that DC is growing, 7 million people, in the region but it’s a small space. Hopefully doing right by other folks and hopefully walking through town with a good reputation will pay off in the long run.
Fred Diamond: Doing right, that’s a great way to say it. Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Donald Thomas: This is something that Mike Bloomberg himself really pushes us on. When we meet with him twice a year he asks us two things. One, are we delighting our customers from a customer service perspective? And two, how are we innovating and aggressively innovating regardless of what our competition is doing? Assume you would be innovating even if you had no competition, what does that look like? I think those two things really pervade the culture here and I think they make a lot of sense so we’re always trying to figure out answers to those two things and how we can do better.
Fred Diamond: Of course we mentioned that you’re the General Manager and VP for Bloomberg Government, we hadn’t really mentioned who the Bloomberg is to this point, you just did, Mike Bloomberg, obviously a hugely successful business person. By the time this show goes live he may be a candidate for higher office, of course he was the mayor of New York. I’m just curious, what is his impact, impression been on the organization? You mentioned innovation but what are some of the other things that such a hugely successful and amazing man has led into your organization?
Donald Thomas: I think he exhibits really high character and high standards and he holds people to that, that’s part of the culture. There are four or five core values that we’re actually evaluated on, everybody is in the whole company and I’m not sure because I’ve been here about 5 years and this is a 40 year old company but I’m imagining those come down from Mike. I think we are a sales culture, a sales driven organization even though I think you could argue we’re also the second largest media organization in the world, we’re a technology driven organization, we’re a data driven organization but I think Mike really established early on a big sales culture so that’s a real big driver of this organization. I think when he’s not running for president or serving as the mayor, he’s very active in the business and knows what’s going on, knows our customers, knows our people and is a huge presence. Not that others aren’t, but he’s a huge presence here.
Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final thought to inspire our listeners today, we talked a lot about your early background being in management consulting and of course you’re not running the whole organization but sales is hard. Again, you’re in a competitive space, media, subscriptions, you have a couple dozen salespeople here, you have a sales driven culture. What would you recommend in sales as a career that has kept you going?
Donald Thomas: I’m quietly one of the most competitive people out there and I love to win, so I think winning is the thing that keeps me going. I mentioned earlier that if you have a bad month it feels really bad but when you have the good month it feels great. I love to win and I think sales is a real arbiter of how you’re doing, winning or losing, but hopefully winning, it’s super motivating.
Fred Diamond: I know you coach a couple of youth sports as well. Who’s your favorite team, just curiously?
Donald Thomas: I went to undergrad at the University of Virginia and I follow college sports, I follow professional too but college sports so UVA basketball, UVA football, lacrosse, soccer, I follow all of it.
Fred Diamond: Last year was a very good year for UVA basketball.
Donald Thomas: Absolutely, and lacrosse, it was great.
Fred Diamond: They won as well?
Donald Thomas: They did.
Fred Diamond: Good for them. Donald, why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire our listeners around the globe?
Donald Thomas: One thing I tell folks on our team is that sales is really the thing that measures how well our company is doing, you’re selling or you aren’t, you’re winning against the competition or you aren’t. There’s lots of things that go into that, the product and the data and how well we do all of those things in the back end which is super important but for the sales folks you’re out on the front lines, you’re the engine that drives the growth here and it’s very clear whether we’re doing something right or not because we’re selling and retaining customers.